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Brexiting reason: On Boris Johnson’s populist avarice


By Dr Rodanthi Tzanelli

In this post, Rodanthi reflects on the problematic populist uses of popular-cultural personas by the UK’s Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, in the context of Brexit negotiations.

Exiting (?) the political with a Ball

The parasitic nature of politics on popular culture is old news: in the (21st-century) era of hypermobile tele-communications, spokespersons from the political world use a variety of media conduits to achieve their personal/political objectives. It has not been that long since an ostracised from the New Labour electorate Ed Balls made it to newspaper headlines because of his participation in the popular show Strictly Come Dancing with professional dancer Katja Jones. For decades before that, Balls had built his public persona around an ennobled, yet clearly discernible habitus involving soft machismo (notoriously, he would take seriously his play in the annual journalists v. MPs football competition), confrontational performance in the House of Commons and carefully orchestrated intervention in the country’s commons. Notably we hardly read anything about his party-going habits or intimate social skills until his Strictly ascendance to fame. A new endearingly clumsy dancing persona was born in 2016 to which we could relate better.

Balls’ Strictly biographical record acted like an onion-peeling process: it stripped a thick layer of alleged masculine decency off his being, leaving him completely naked in front of a national audience alternating between tears of elation (for his camp dancing) and sadness (for his eventual departure from the show). The ‘Strictly Balls’ constructed (by default) a surgical gaze, willing to cut more slices off the ex-political ‘object’s’ public (in)decency, ever hungrier for more of this ‘object’s’ slapstick, theatrical-like dance-acting. The clinical metaphor matters: we can also read between the lines of this camp theatricality a much-needed self-promotion of this ex-politician’s biographical publication, in which he talks about politics and personal life in equal measure. Such intentionalities, which do not belong to the popular as the realm of enjoyment and human well-being, are fed to us like popcorn by cultural industries – all we need to do is also recall Anne Widdecombe’s Strictly appearance in 2010 (with professional dancer Anton du Beke) and her continuous re-appearance in subsequent Strictly shows to the date. Would we expect to engage with the ultra-reactionary Widdecombe probed and dragged by du Beke on the dance floor several times across different performances under other circumstances that easily?

Scales of intentionality

It is, of course, fair to say that there are scales of intentionality in such symbolic facelifts, followed by the generation of different degrees of public harm: eating your popcorn while watching Ed regaining his humanity after years of stiff upper-lip-ness in the Commons is nowhere near our current Prime Minister, Boris Johnson’s nonchalant likening of himself to ‘Incredible Hulk’ on the eve of the UK’s suicidal exit from the EU (the engineering of which is partly his). Just before his meeting with European Commission President, Jean-Claude Juncker, and determined to impress upon him that, if no deal is reached by the 18th of October, Brexit will happen on the current set date without further extensions, the UK Prime Minister decided to emulate the ‘Balls trick’ with impunity. Leaving the EU officials exasperated, he compared himself in an interview to the Incredible Hulk throwing off the shackles of the EU. The statement provoked adverse reaction also from the world of creative industries, with actor and Hulk impersonator, Mark Ruffalo, tweeting a sharp response:

Boris Johnson forgets that the Hulk only fights for the good of the whole. Mad and strong can also be dense and destructive. The Hulk works best when he is in unison with a team and is a disaster when he is alone. Plus...he’s always got Dr. Banner with science and reason.

The tweet, which matched the ugly reality of current Brexit agendas with a fictional story of gaining self-control through communal solidarity, conformed to a familiar humanist discourse on popular culture. Popular-cultural registers outline the contours of our humanity through the production and dissemination of human types – these types are, in sociological terms, comparable to Max Weber’s ‘ideal types’ and Norbert Elias’ ‘habitus’. Telling a story about what makes us human, imperfect and unique at the same time, such stories appeal to the majority of audiences, who make up the bulk of global popcultural fans and cultural-industrial clientele.

The age of unreason: populist inhumanity and popular culture

I fear that the EU officials’ pronouncement of Boris’ statement as ‘infantile’ misses the political role of nomination – what, in French sociologist Roland Barthes’ (1993) terms, results in naming and therefore claiming things and situations as unquestionable reality. Despite its sensitive and insightful nature, Ruffalo’s reaction also misses a key instrumental function that conflations between popular-cultural and populist registers acquire in times of social, political and cultural crisis. Specifically, in the case of the Hulk incident, Mr. Johnson’s appropriations of a popular-cultural figure activates a complex process, whereby the fictional humanisation of negativity (anger, spite, resentment) that facilitates de-humanising and de-civilising action: a Hulk PM is (self-)authorised to think and act before reason in appropriate masculine ways (this is a reversal of Ed Balls’ camp project) on behalf of the ‘British nation’. Social theorist Zygmunt Bauman coined the term adiaphorization to explain when, in surveillance, ‘systems and processes become split off from any consideration of morality’ (Bauman and Lyon, 2013, p. 8). By naming himself a flawed (but deep down good) human-like popcultural ideal type (Hulk), who is allowed to be just so (furious and irrational) at any time, Mr. Johnson separates attention to a very sensitive process (Brexit negotiations) from morality (the responsibility to act in the true interests of the UK).

Mr. Johnson’s continuous calibration of a relaxed, ‘cool’ personality, with which both urban conservatives and reactionary working classes can associate, finds in this adiaphorized nomination a renewed vitalism that, at least, sociologists of culture associate with the rise of interwar populism in Europe. This is a populism partnered with extremism to eventually feed authoritarian and totalitarian regimes with little respect for human rights, cultural diversity, migration-induced hybridisation and cosmopolitan openness. There is nothing enjoyable or popular-cultural in these emergent associations, which both resurgent and ultra-conservative journalism seem to reproduce in endless articles on the PM’s avarice style. Perhaps a more appropriate response to this attitude, which feeds on public attention, would be to agree on ignoring it after the initial reaction. Few reasonable people would like to have a ‘Hulk’ PM in the news for fun, when the country risks staying without friends and partners in the world for the decades to come.


Barthes, R. (1993). Mythologies. London: Vintage.

Bauman, Z. and Lyon, D. (2013). Liquid Surveillance. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Rodanthi’s article ‘Unpopular Culture: Ecological Dissonance and Sustainable Futures in Media-Induced Tourism’ will be published next year in the Special Issue Popular Culture, Fandom and Tourism: Emergent Intersections of Destination Place-Making curated by Lincoln Geraghty, Vassilios Ziakas and Christine Lundberg for the Journal of Popular Culture.

Image courtesy of Justin Case on Flickr